Brachiaria, a high quality fodder grass
Originally from Africa and bred in South America, Brachiaria grass is gaining popularity among cattle farmers in Kenya. The grass is credited with helping to revolutionalize the Brazilian beef industry. The grass has found its way to Africa, and a ready home in Kenya.
Sustainable fodder production is a constant problem facing dairy and beef farmers in Kenya. This is particularly severe in the dry season when traditional fodder grasses, like Napier cannot cope and farmers are left with no fodder for their animals. Hence, there has been continuous search for fodder grasses to ensure farmers have a consistent supply of high quality fodder for their animals, even during the dry season. Brachiaria is a grass native to Africa and other tropical regions. Now, the grass has returned to Africa, including Kenya. Two varieties of Brachiaria known as Mulato and Mulato II, are tolerant to drought, recover fast after grazing, show high plant vigour, give good quality forage and are tasty to the animals.
Brachiaria cv. Mulato and Mulato II are a result of breeding by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). According to Dr. Brigitte Maass, a forage scientist with CIAT in Kenya, Brachiaria cv. Mulato and cv. Mulato II are hybrids which have resulted from crosses involving 3 species; Brachiaria brizantha, B. decumbens and B. ruziziensis. The last one is used as a bridge. The result is a hybrid that is apomictic, meaning that the seeds produced are true breeds (their genes do not change). In reality, they are like clones of mother plant. This is an ideal situation that is not common with many crops and forages because farmers will not lose the vigor of the plant.
Mulato grows in well-drained soils of medium to high fertility with pH 5-8. Like Napier grass, it responds well to well-matured manure. It is drought tolerant and has potential to grow well in relatively drier areas of Western Kenya with mean annual rainfall of not less than 700 mm and mean daily temperatures higher than 30ᵒC. Trials conducted by KARI-Marigat show that the grass does well under irrigation in arid and semi arid areas, and under rain-fed conditions in the transitional zones.
Mulato Brachiaria is best propagated by seeds, though it can also be planted from vegetative material. Seed is the most appropriate mode of establishment for farmers who want to plant large plots of the grass. At the moment, since the seed is not yet readily available locally, farmers are advised to use vegetative propagation by cuttings. When using seed, a farmer needs 2.5-3kgs per acre. Seed is sown at the onset of rains in well-tilled seedbeds. An important feature of the Mulato Brachiaria is that its stems are capable of rooting when they come into contact with moist soil especially cause by trampling of animals. Mulato II performs very well not only in grazed systems, but also in cut and carry system.
Farmers are advised to carry out routine top dressing after every cutting or grazing; using well-matured compost, farm yard manure and rock phosphate. The grass has thick leaves, which makes it difficult for weeds to thrive.
Use of Brachiaria grass
Mulato Brachiaria can be grazed or cut and fed to animals in stalls and feedlots. Where animals graze, the duration depends on the number of animals. Sufficient time must be given to a pasture to grow back after intensive grazing. Rotational grazing will give grass time to re-grow. Where farmers cut and carry to feed the animals, the grass is ready for the next cut in about 45-50 days during the rainy season. At this stage, the grass has higher nutrient content, especially protein, than Napier.
Mulato Brachiaria has high production capacity for biomass; therefore, it is a good alternative for making silage and hay for use during the dry season. Its production and nutrient content depend on soil fertility and its management, as well as the stage of harvesting.
Farmers who have planted and used this fodder grass are impressed by its performance. Research at KARI-Kakamega and KARI-Marigat indicates that the grass holds huge potential for the dairy and beef industry in Kenya, especially in the drier areas where Napier grass does not do very well and in areas affected by the Napier stunt disease. CIAT, ICIPE and partners are exploring private partnerships to make the seed commercially available in Kenya, at an affordable price for farmers.
Brachiaria finds a home in the Push-pull system
Scientists at ICIPE, led by Prof. Zeyaur R. Khan developed Push-Pull to respond to the problem of stem borers and Striga weed in maize. The push-pull system uses Desmodium (Desmodium uncinatum), planted between rows of maize, to push the stemborer moths out of the maize field. Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) is planted around the maize plot to ensure that the stem borers are not able to develop to maturity. After repeated trials with different kinds of legumes ICIPE scientists found that Desmodium is more effective than other legumes in reducing striga and increasing maize yields, because it has the specific phytochemical that prevents Striga from growing longer into the maize plant.
Foxtail, a drought tolerant grass for arid and semi arid areas
Also, called the foxtail grass, Cenchrus is a nutritious grass that is often used to fatten beef animals in the rangelands. It is a tolerant grass, perennial, matures fast and has multiple benefits. The grass is suitable for areas with an annual rainfall of 300 to 1200 mm. Though drought tolerant, it does not tolerate flooding or water-logging. It is used as a permanent pasture for grazing, for making hay or silage. It responds quickly to rain, which makes it an ideal pasture for the arid and semiarid areas.
Foxtail grass is grown from seeds, mainly during the rainy season. You need 3-6kg/ha when planting. Growing the grass successfully depends on land preparation. Plough the land to loosen the topsoil. Use a rake or harrow to prepare the soil into fine tilth, then broadcast the seed.
Since the seeds are light and can be blown away by the wind, plant on a day with minimal wind and moist soil. Avoid days with heavy rains, as the seed will be washed away by runoff water. To cover the seed lightly, drag tree twigs over it. If you plant too deep then they will not germinate.
How to manage the sown grass
The amount of grass harvested is dependent on how the grass is managed. Apply manure during planting to promote good root development. Apply 4 tonnes of farmyard manure at planting. To remove weeds, manually pull them by hand once the grass has grown and you can identify the weeds. It takes 3 – 6 months for the grass to grow, although this depends on the amount of rainfall available.
Utilization of the grass
Foxtail grass can be grazed directly or cut, carried and fed in stalls or feedlots. The best time for animals to graze is at the piping stage – just before flowering or cut and carry when the field is at about 50% flowering. Avoid over grazing
Cenchrus pastures as they get degraded as they take time to grow again when the rains come. For places that mostly lack pastures during the dry season, foxtail hay is excellent as it provides the much-needed nutrition for the animals especially when they are being fattened for the market. Although the yields of the grass depend greatly on management, soil fertility and available rainfall, the harvest in the second year may double that of the first year.
Other than storing the grass to feed animals during the dry season, you can make hay for sale whether you have animals or not. Although the size of the farm is not critical, the bigger the farm the higher the profit because of economies of scale.
Notice: Interested farmers can get Cenchrus seed from KARI Marigat at KES 600 per kilogramme. Talk to the Marigat sub-county Livestock Production Officer 0724848816.
Plant Calliandra for fodder and soil fertility
Apart from helping farmers deal with pests, the system provides a source of fodder for cows, goats and sheep, particularly Desmodium as a protein supplement.
As the uptake of push-pull continues to increase and spread to different agro-ecologies, particularly drier areas where sorghum and finger millet thrive, a drought tolerant trap alternative to Napier grass and intercrop alternative to Desmodium is needed. This is where Brachiaria finds its place in the push-pull system. Trials conducted by ICIPE and partners show that Brachiaria cv. Mulato is tolerant to drought conditions of up to 3 months and temperatures of more than 30ᵒC. To accommodate Brachiaria, slight adjustments are made onto the system. Four rows of Mulato II are planted instead of 3 rows of Napier grass. Farmers involved in the trials get Mulato II seeds from ICIPE.
Unlike Napier grass, Mulato Brachiaria does not have stinging hairs, making it easy to cut and carry. This is a quality that makes the grass attractive to farmers who use the push-pull technology to control stem borer and Striga and as a way of growing fodder for their animals.
Many farmers have complained that they have great difficulties in feeding their livestock during the dry season. It seems they are yet to understand that you cannot depend on fresh Napier grass or other green vegetation to feed livestock throughout the year.
During the dry season, vegetation dries out and farmers are left with nothing to feed their cows or goats leading to drastic reduction in milk and meat yield.
This needs not be the case and farmers should take advantage of long rains to grow a variety of fodder crops, which can survive drought and can be fed to livestock during the dry season. Instead of buying expensive concentrates, there are a variety of leguminous plants that can serve the purpose.
In this article, we show you how to grow fodder trees and shrubs, many of which are rich in protein for dairy and beef cattle, chicken and pigs. In past issues, TOF has published articles on how farmers can grow fodder trees and shrubs like calliandra, leucaena, desmodium, and fodder crops like sweet potato vines and other legumes. 3 kg of tree fodder and other legumes such as sweet potato vines give the same milk yield as 1 kg of dairy meal. Therefore, the farmer can give the cow 12kg of legumes instead of 4kg of dairy meal.
Fodder shrubs are not difficult to grow and should not compete with your crops for space. You can grow shrubs along the boundaries and hedges in your shamba. If you have enough space, you can grow the shrubs in lines to form terraces. This helps to reduce soil erosion, protect watersheds and provide farmers with firewood.
For bee farmers, there is the added advantage of having nectar for bees, which means more honey and money. Calliandra calothyrsus is one of the useful fodder shrubs you can grow in your farm. It is a thornless leguminous fodder shrub that originated from Central America. It is an important tree species that can be used as a substitute for commercial dairy meal. Its main advantages are that it is easy to grow and manage, grows fast, is tolerant to acidic soil and helps fix nitrogen in the soil. Farmers can cut its branches repeatedly to feed to dairy cows and goats, and these grow back very quickly.
Conditions for growth
Calliandra grows to a height of 4 to 6 metres. It requires rainfall that is above 1,000mm per year; the plant is not very drought tolerant although it can withstand dry periods. It can also tolerate some shade but grows best in open areas. The plant also grows in a wide range of soils, but for better growth it requires well-drained soils, and does not tolerate water logging.
Planting and management
Calliandra can be planted between upper-storey shrubs on farm boundaries, in hedges around homesteads, on contour bunds, and in lines between Napier grass. Transplant seedlings from the nursery (when they are 0.2m to 0.3m in height).
Plant them in rows of about 0.3m spacing between plants. Use manure and water the seedlings adequately. Calliandra trees are cut back at a height of 2m to between 0.15m and 1m to improve foliage which is used as fodder for livestock.
Pests and disease control
Calliandra is fairly resistant to pests and diseases. However, some fungal pathogens like Armillaria mellea can cause root rot in cool and high altitude areas. Affected plants should be uprooted and burnt.
Fodder is ready for harvesting in about 9 – 12 months after planting depending on the region. It is possible to have 4 to 6 harvests per year. Use a panga or secateurs (pruning scissors). Letting animals eat the leaves or young branches directly is not recommended as they may destroy the plants.
Leaves and young branches should be cut when they are about 3 feet. After about 12 years, you should replace the plants with new ones. One disadvantage of this shrub is that it does not produce large amount of seeds. Farmers who wish to collect seeds should do so very carefully since the seeds are naturally dispersed far away from the tree as the pods split suddenly.
One kilogramme of dry calliandra has the same amount of digestible protein as about 1 kg of dairy meal. On a fresh weight basis, 3 kg of calliandra is equivalent to about 1 kg of dairy meal and the effects of calliandra and dairy meal have been found to be supplementary, suggesting that the two feeds are nutritionally interchangeable. A farmer would need about 500 shrubs to feed a dairy cow throughout the year at a rate of 2 kg dry matter (6 kg fresh material) a day. Because it has high levels of tannin (a bitter substance), calliandra should only be fed to ruminants like cows, goats and sheep. It is therefore not easily digested by non-ruminants like pigs, rabbits and chickens.
Apart from feeding dairy animals, calliandra is useful in improving the soil nutrient levels and is useful for the reforestation of bare areas that are prone to soil erosion. Calliandra wood is also good for fuel as it grows quickly, burns well and can be used to produce charcoal. The poles can also be used in supporting climbing beans. In addition, the leaves can be used for mulching and as green manure for other crops since it adds nitrogen to the soil. Its flowers provide nectar for bees, and the honey produced is said to be of good quality.
You can buy Calliandra seeds from KEFRI Seed Centre. Their contact is 020 2365157, 0729 058 034, firstname.lastname@example.org.